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Buddha in the Business World: 1

In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, when young Siddhartha meets the beautiful courtesan Kamala, he is not yet an enlightened man but is on the way to enlightenment, not a Buddha yet, but is soon to become one. They become friends instantly and later fall in love with each other. One day Kamala speaks to Siddhartha of the rich merchant Kamaswami.

“Things are working out well,” she tells him. “They are expecting you at Kamaswami’s, he is the richest merchant of the city. If he’ll like you, he’ll accept you into his service. Be smart, brown Samana. I had others tell him about you. Be polite towards him, he is very powerful. But don’t be too modest! I do not want you to become his servant, you shall become his equal, or else I won’t be satisfied with you. Kamaswami is starting to get old and lazy. If he’ll like you, he’ll entrust you with a lot.”

“You’ve been lucky,” she adds, “I’m opening one door after another for you. How come? Do you have a spell?”

Though he has not yet attained enlightenment, Siddhartha is already a man who has learnt to flow with life, go where life takes him. He has stopped fighting with existence, with life. He is no more the accidental man, but has become the essential man. Doors open on their own for such people. But Kamala, the courtesan, the woman of the world, does not understand that. She takes credit for what is happening. She tells Siddhartha, “Where would you be without me? What would you be, if Kamala wasn’t helping you?”

“Dear Kamala,” said Siddhartha and straightened up to his full height, “when I came to you in your grove, I did the first step. It was my resolution to learn love from this most beautiful woman. From that moment on when I had made this resolution, I also knew that I would carry it out. I knew that you would help me, at your first glance at the entrance of the grove I already knew it.”

“But what if I hadn’t been willing?”

“You were willing. Look, Kamala: When you throw a rock into the water, it will speed on the fastest course to the bottom of the water. This is how it is when Siddhartha has a goal, a resolution. Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like a rock through water, without doing anything, without stirring; he is drawn, he lets himself fall. His goal attracts him, because he doesn’t let anything enter his soul which might oppose the goal. This is what Siddhartha has learned among the Samanas. This is what fools call magic and of which they think it would be effected by means of the daemons. Nothing is effected by daemons, there are no daemons. Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.”

Siddhartha is not being ungrateful. I am sure he is grateful to Kamala for all that she has done for him and loves her for that. But going beyond gratefulness, he is speaking the truth.

Siddhartha’s words here contain immense wisdom. The human mind is a powerhouse. It is the greatest power there is in the universe. All other powers in the world are but faint reflections of the power of the mind.

The Yoga Vasishtha, that ancient classic whose observations about the powers of the mind are unsurpassed, says that as minds, we have limitless powers at our command. Thought in the forms of desire, imagination, effort and will is the most potent force in the world. Mind is endowed with creative power. In its creative activity mind is absolutely free. We all attain to what we aspire after. All that we intensely desire come to us sooner or later.

The mind loses its power when it is disturbed, agitated, crowded with thoughts and worries. The quieter the mind becomes, the more powerful it becomes. A single thought held in a still mind is like the will of the universe itself. There is no power in the universe like a mind that has become still. We all have access to the boundless powers of the mind to the extent we are close to stillness.

I have written elsewhere of an experiment a researcher named Duane Elgin conducted at Stanford Research Institute. His attempts were to influence a magnetometer, which measured magnetic power, using his intentions alone. In his initial attempts, Elgin focused on the magnetometer willing to make its needle move. He continued his efforts, concentrating on the meter with all his will power for twenty to thirty minute stretches at a time. Nothing happened. And then he gave up in despair – and the moment he gave up, the needle moved. The movements were not slight, but unbelievably powerful – in some cases, as powerful as one thousand times the strength of the earth’s magnetic field! He soon learnt that to influence the magnetometer he did not have to be near it – he could do it from his home, miles away!

Eventually Elgin mastered his technique and this is what he did: “I’d spend twenty to thirty minutes doing the best I could to establish a sense of rapport and connectedness with the instrument, and with great will and concentration I would coalesce that sense of connectedness into a field of palpable energy. I’d feel myself coming into a magnetic field and pulsing it to respond. Then, when there would be a moment of total surrender, the response would occur.”

The power of a mind that has learnt to surrender is unlimited. In surrender, the mind becomes still and in that stillness, all its boundless powers are at its command.

In its days of glory, Tibet had an education programme that lasted for twelve years. This was an esoteric programme for selected young lamas and children of the nobility, and a central aim of the programme was to transform people into what was called wang thangs – centres of power. Through meditations and other allied exercises, stillness was achieved and the stillness unleashed the powers of the mind that were normally not accessible to the agitated mind.

When a still mind makes a resolution, that resolution becomes a reality. That’s why in Indian culture we say that whatever thought is born in the mind of the great ascetics rich in tapas becomes reality. We say they have the power to bless and to curse, make all kinds of things happen in the world around them.

When a resolution enters the mind of someone like Siddhartha, it becomes a reality. People become instrumental in turning the resolutions into realities – that does not mean they cause it. The events are caused by the power of the resolution itself. Kamala may believe that she is doing favours to Siddhartha, but the fact is that Kamala has no choice but to do them. To use the metaphor that Siddhartha himself uses, every resolution in his mind is like a stone thrown into water. It will speed on the fastest course to the bottom of the water.


Two more important things.

Kamala tells Siddhartha: “I do not want you to become his servant, you shall become his equal, or else I won’t be satisfied with you.” I love what she says.

Years ago I used to live with my guru in his ashram, as his student and disciple. In all, there were some hundred and twenty of us young people there – around sixty of us from India and the other sixty from across the world, mostly from the US and Europe. We had our regular classes on the Upanishads and the Gita and a few other texts. The classes were held either in the large lecture hall, or in our beautiful temple hall. The evening lectures were mostly in the temple hall. Memories of the glorious evenings spent listening to Swamiji lecture to us there are still as fresh in my mind as though they are happening now. One such evening, sitting majestically in his teacher’s seat in the temple, his entire body charged with spiritual power, his face glowing, Swamiji told us in his booming, commanding voice: “Never be a slave to the world. Serve the world like a master and walk off like a king.”

There is something about the theory of servant leadership that makes me uncomfortable. I like most of the things about it. Like, I like the idea that a leader need not necessarily hold formal leadership positions. Gandhi, easily the most influential and effective Indian leader in modern times, did not hold a formal leadership position throughout most of his later life. The all-time greatest leader India has seen, Krishna, never held any formal positions in his life. In Mathura, where his wicked uncle whom he killed was king, he could easily have become king. But he refused that position. Throughout his long life, he disposes off many evil kings, but never accepts the kingdoms for himself. Instead, he always places the son of the dead king on the throne and refuses all positions for himself. In the Mahabharata war, he could easily have become the commander-in-chief of the Pandava army. In every way he was the most competent person for that position and yet he chose to be Arjuna’s driver, instead.

Similarly, I like the idea that a leader should encourage collaboration and trust. I like the idea that a leader should use his power ethically and should empower his followers. I like the idea that a leader should be a good listener, should strive to understand and empathise with others and accept them as unique individuals. I love the idea that a leader should be able to touch his people and through his touch transform them, heal them. I appreciate the need for a leader to be awareful – have self-awareness, other-awareness and general awareness. I totally agree with the servant leadership stand that a good leader uses persuasion rather than his positional authority; that he should be a dreamer of great dreams and see into the future, that he should have the ability to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and likely consequences of a decision for the future; that he should be committed to building community, helping his people grow as persons, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and evolve into leaders themselves.

That’s liking almost everything about servant leadership, for this is what servant leadership is all about. What then makes me uncomfortable about the concept?

Perhaps it is the idea that the servant leader is a servant first.

No, it is not that I do not believe that a leader should serve and serve first. But I believe he never really becomes a servant even when he serves – he is always a master. In fact, I believe it is only as a master that you can really serve. As a servant you really cannot serve. As a servant you can obey, take orders and carry them out, but you cannot guide, you cannot transform people, you can empower them.

Scholars writing about servant leadership in the Indian context often quote Krishna’s example for servant leadership. Didn’t he serve Arjuna as his charioteer? But I do not see Krishna serving Arjuna as a servant. Even when serving Arjuna, Krishna is the master. Krishna cannot be anything but a master. The only way he can serve is as a master.

The Journey to the East, yet another classic by Hermann Hesse, is considered seminal to the understanding of the concept of servant leadership – in fact it is the book that inspired Robert K. Greenleaf to evolve his theory of servant leadership. In the first essay in his Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, Greenleaf says, “The idea of the servant as leader came out of reading Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. In this story we see a band of men on a mythical journey, probably also Hesse’s own journey. The central figure of the story is Leo, who accompanies the party as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song. He is a person of extraordinary presence. All goes well until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned. They cannot make it without the servant Leo. The narrator, one of the party, after some years of wandering, finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey. There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.”

To make sure about what I am writing, I just read The Journey to the East, a book that I have been intending to read for years, since Hesse is among my all time favourite authors. True, Leo serves the group, but he never becomes a servant in the book. He remains a master even when he serves. It is with the full awareness that he is the master that he serves the travelers. And he never once loses his dignity as a master even when he serves.

The wise Mahabharata says: “A good king [leader] should always behave in such a manner as to avoid what is dear to him, for the sake of doing that which would benefit his people.” The Mahabharata wants a leader to serve his people, but it does not want him to be their servant.

Nor does Chanakya mean the leader should become the servant of his followers when he says that the leader should always do what is dear to his people and not what is dear to himself. Chanakya’s leader remains the swami even when he serves.

And I do not mean, either in the case of Krishna or in any other case, that one should be a master of others. By the word master I mean a self-master. That is what the Sanskrit word swami means – a master, a master of oneself, a self-master.

Neither a master of others, nor a servant to others, but a master of oneself.

That is what the courtesan Kamala tells Siddhartha: “I do not want you to become his servant.” Kamaswami is wealth. How can wisdom be the servant of wealth? Can there be anything more demeaning than a man like Siddhartha becoming Kamaswami’s servant?

Kamala wants Siddhartha to remain Kamaswami’s equal: “You shall become his equal.”

And Kamala adds, “Or else I won’t be satisfied with you.”

A woman like Kamala cannot respect a servant, a slave. She is a mistress of herself in spite of being a courtesan and she can respect only a master.

This is not arrogance. This is dignity.

The Tibetan Shambhala tradition talks about the four dignities to be cultivated on the road to perfection, and the first of these dignities is meekness. And the tradition explains: Meekness is not being feeble, but resting in a state of simplicity, being uncomplicated and approachable. It is being true and genuine, being completely comfortable with yourself and at ease in the world.

For the Shambhala tradition, the analogy for meekness is a tiger – a tiger in its prime, who moves slowly and heedfully through the jungle, mindfully, relaxed, liking his body and his bounciness and sense of rhythm.

That is how I see all self-masters. That is how Kamala wants Siddhartha to be with Kamaswami. That is how every man should be.

One should not compromise on human dignity while serving.

Well, perhaps all I have against servant leadership is a quarrel with one word.


That’s one thing. The other thing I want to comment about is what Siddhartha tells about his goal, his resolution. He says once he has set his goal, once he has made his resolution, “he doesn’t let anything enter his soul which might oppose the goal.” Most of our resolutions fail because of our inner conflicts, inner contradictions. We do not have the singlemindedness to make our resolutions come true. Doubts arise in our minds, questions arise, and our own mind works against our resolutions and defeats them.

As Krishna puts it in the Bhagavad Gita: vyavasāyatmikā buddhir ekeha kurunandana; bahuśākhā hi anantāh ca buddhayo’vyavasāyinām. “Those who are resolute sustain a single thought in their mind, but the thoughts of the irresolute are endless and many-branched, O Arjuna.”

We are never defeated by the world outside. We are always defeated by ourselves. By our own minds. By our doubts and inner conflicts. By our irresoluteness.

Miracles happen when your mind is resolute.

Your mere desires then get transformed into realities.

It is for that reason that the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad asks us to be careful about what we desire. For our desires shape us: atha u khalu āhuh. kāmamaya evāyam purusha iti. “Therefore it is indeed said: you are what your desire is.”

To be continued….


Note: For those who are not familiar with Hermann Hesse’s book, Siddhartha here is not the historical Buddha, though he too is a character in the book. This Siddhartha is a Brahmin youth who leaves home in search of the truth, as the Buddha himself did.


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